The Problem with Perfectionism
I am not a mental health expert, nor do I speak on behalf of anyone else with any mental health disorder or illness. This is my perspective as someone with generalized anxiety, bipolar disorder, and a smidge of (diagnosed) OCD.
The problem with perfectionism — among many problems — is that it lies to me.
You have to do everything right or why bother?
If you screw up, it proves that you suck.
Keep checking yourself — double, triple, quadruple check! — and you’ll never make a mistake.
Perfectionism feeds anxiety. It’s either the reason (some of us) are Type A or why so many more of us can never act, and then we’re paralyzed, even though we have big goals and dreams.
When My Brain Lies to Me
Nothing can ever be perfect, but my perfectionist brain tries to convince me I can defy reality. It’s a vicious cycle. Making a single mistake or doing something (nearly) perfect feeds the anxious thoughts — in multiple ways.
One mistake, like accidentally naming a new project after a friend’s blog (even though in the planning I knew this was an issue and made plans to avoid this problem) tells me a few lies. One, that everything should always be quadruple checked to prevent a mistake. Two, that this proves I was right to be nervous about doing a new thing. Three, they’re all going to hate me.
By not quadruple checking myself and feeling “confident,” I fucked up and made a preventable mistake. Proof that my perfectionist ways are valid. (They’re not.)
When my anxious brain tells me to do be nervous about doing something new, there’s a “reason” beyond a lying anxious brain. (Not usually.)
Everyone’s going to hate me because everyone will know I screwed up. (“Everyone” never knows anything and most people aren’t paying as close attention as we think they are.)
It’s Never Just a Mistake
In my perfectionist brain, mistakes always feel bigger than they are. So I overcompensate.
I go out of my way to promise I’ll never fuck up again. My apologies tend to go on far longer than the mistake warrants. In my mind, I relive every detail to find exactly where I went wrong, berate myself for not seeing it in the first place, and vow I won’t let it happen again.
The one upside to the way perfectionism eats at my mind is that I almost never repeat the same mistake twice. I make other mistakes, but never that one. You might say I’ve learned from it, but what I’ve really done is made myself so anxious that I have a new time-consuming process to avoid it in the future.
In the case of the aforementioned naming issue, it was easily corrected. And while I was in the car, realizing what I’d done, I’d fixed it in two places. The one place I can’t fix it is something that will be corrected later and in the future by telling my audience, “Oops!”
Oh, and I apologized profusely.
Which, by the way, is always the right thing to do when you make a mistake that impacts someone else. But I never feel like it’s enough or that I’ll be believed.
What does my perfectionist brain do with this information? Tries to berate me that it’s not enough. That apologizing, fixing it where I can, and doing better going forward isn’t enough. (“They’re all going to laugh at you!” from the movie Carrie plays over and over in my head.)
Because when perfectionism and anxiety co-exist (as they often do), nothing is ever enough. The fears are too great, as is the false belief that the mistake could have been prevented. If I’d only tried hard enough.
Why am I writing about perfectionism and anxiety in this space? Because I’m not the only person to have to deal with it. And in creative communities (like the sex blogger space), we’re a lot less alone in our mental health than we realize.